If streaming devices are a commodity like rice or paper towels, Roku deserves a lot of the credit. (Or maybe that’s the blame, depending on your point of view.) The streaming specialist has been making the same basic boxes and sticks for the last five years, iterating and improving along the way and selling them at crazy-low prices. And the formula works.
Roku routinely tops CNET’s list of best media streamers, and its outsells giants like Amazon, Google and Apple year in and year out. Rokus are simple to use yet powerful enough to deliver snappy performance with the latest versions of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and thousands of other apps.
For 2018 Roku has two new streaming players — the $40 Roku Premiere and $50 Roku Premiere Plus reviewed here. They’re basically just as good as existing players, which Roku continues to sell, and they’re cheaper than ever for 4K streaming.
The Premiere Plus is my favorite between the two, but my favorite Roku overall is still the Streaming Stick Plus from 2017. For an extra $10 over the Premiere Plus it gives you the potential for superior Wi-Fi reception: It can pull in 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks, which in many places perform better than standard 2.4 GHz ones (see below for details). The Stick Plus also has Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac), which offers the potential for faster speeds over the Premiere Plus, which maxes out at Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n). That said, Wi-Fi 4 is more than fast enough for 4K video in most cases.
Beyond Wi-Fi differences, the new Rokus are “more of the same,” but that’s not a bad thing, and Roku continues to add new features to all of its streamers. Coming soon is support for Google Assistant for example (you’ll need to add an Assistant-capable device to your network), which should help it even the voice control odds against its chief competitor, the $50 Alexa-powered Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.
Two other caveats: The Roku Premiere Plus is available exclusively at Walmart, and only in the US.
Roku Premiere Plus vs. the rest
If you’re buying a streamer today your first task is to decide between one that does 4K HDR and one that doesn’t. If you have a 4K HDR TV and you don’t love its built-in Smart TV functions, you should definitely get a 4K HDR streamer.
Even if your current TV doesn’t do 4K, there’s a good argument for going with a budget 4K HDR device like the Premiere Plus anyway. The price difference between 4K and non-4K streamers is so small ($20 in Roku’s and Amazon’s cases) it might be worth paying in case you do get a 4K TV soon, and want to be ready without having to buy a new streamer then.
Here’s how the Premiere Plus stacks up against the other choices.
Vs. the $50 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: For the same price it has better voice support thanks to Alexa built into the remote, but Roku’s remote has voice search and play/pause commands too, and its forthcoming Google Assistant integration could even the playing field for far-field (hands-free) commands. If you have a Dolby Vision TV the Fire TV Stick 4K becomes more appealing, but Roku’s interface is more neutral: it doesn’t pummel you with Amazon’s own TV shows and movies. Look for my full review of the Fire TV Stick 4K once it becomes available.
Vs. the $40 Roku Premiere: For $10 less the Premiere drops the Plus’ voice remote with TV control, and its remote requires you to aim it at the device. Otherwise the two Roku streamers are identical. In my book that remote is worth the money, so I like the Plus better, but I can see super-budget buyers (or Harmony users) going with the basic Premiere.
Vs. the $60 Roku Streaming Stick Plus: For $10 more the Stick Plus’ only advantage over the Premiere Plus is compatibility with 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. Most people will be fine with standard 2.4GHz streaming, but if you’re not, or you travel with your Roku and could encounter less-than-ideal network performance, consider stepping up to the Stick.
Vs. the $70 Chromecast Ultra: For $20 more, the Ultra lacks a remote and relies on your phone to control streaming. Yes it does have Dolby Vision, but for most people a traditional remote and on-screen interface is better. Chromecast also lacks compatibility with Amazon Prime Video, which is a huge hole for many viewers.
Vs. the $100 Roku Ultra: For $50 more the Ultra’s remote adds a headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function so you don’t lose it among the couch cushions. There’s also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. These features are neat, but not worth the extra money for most people.